Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.

Trump administration pushes housing deregulation

A look at the Trump administration’s approach to homelessness includes this summary of how they view housing more broadly:

Housing deregulation is probably the core of the report outlined by the Council Advisors. That lines up with the Trump administration’s overall position on housing—from Carson’s enthusiasm for breaking up exclusionary zoning to the housing plan that the Domestic Policy Council is drafting. Trump signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in June.

While making it easier to build housing could ease the affordability crisis, it may be hard to achieve those reforms, Hanratty says. Several of the Democratic Party primary candidates have outlined housing plans with various strategies to promote new construction, but all of them would require sweeping new legislation. And in practice, deregulation might not produce housing that is affordable to very low-income families or people with substance-abuse or mental-health afflictions without subsidies.

This is a common conservative argument to make these days: the housing market needs to be a more free one with less interference from local governments as well as the federal government. Attempts at more explicit intervention – such as in public housing – have not proved popular. If the law of supply and demand could simply take over, the market would provide housing options for all.

However, this may not work as intended. The suburbs, a space seen as desirable by many Americans was not the result of free markets but rather the result of all sorts of social and government interventions. Would Houston’s growth without zoning look attractive for communities around the country? Without any regulations, developers and builders may have little incentive to build cheaper housing and instead pursue units that provide more profit.

Finding some middle ground where specific and limited interventions actually lead to more affordable housing will prove difficult. Without some negative consequences for communities and housing market actors who do not participate in providing cheaper housing, what can be done?

Alcohol and the gendered suburbs: suburban bros with beer versus suburban moms with wine

One writer argues alcohol makers and distributors have very gendered visions of the suburban life:

For decades, our televisions told us that men drank beer, women drank wine, and that’s just the way the world was. Beer commercials, even when they’re not overtly objectifying women, often still truck in mundane male fantasy: dudes sharing brews with their bros on game day, hanging out over the grill or golfing.

Wine, meanwhile, is often sold as Mommy Juice to stressed-out ladies who escape the suburban carpool grind with slugs from labels such as Little Black Dress and Skinnygirl.

And White Claw has a different approach:

There’s football — not on a bar TV but rather a co-ed game being played outdoors. Women might be shown in tightfitting clothes, but it’s athletic gear or just regular beachwear, and the models look strong and fit instead of seductive.

That’s entirely intentional, says Sanjiv Gajiwala, vice president of marketing for White Claw. When the brand launched in 2016, the idea behind it was that the traditional worlds depicted in beverage marketing had pretty much gone extinct. White Claw would be the drink of the new gender norms, of the kinds of “group hangs” that define young people’s social lives. “It wasn’t a world where guys got together in a basement and drank beer and women were off doing something else, drinking with their girlfriends,” Gajiwala said. “Whatever we put out creatively and how we positioned the brand really reflects that everyone hangs out together all the time.”

This gets at two issues:

  1. How products market themselves. On one hand, they can target particular segments of the consuming public. This can help drive sales. On the other hand, that specific approach could alienate other consumers who would not consider the product. This reminds me of a possibly apocryphal quote from Michael Jordan that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Pitch one product to men and a similar product to women for decades and there may not be much overlap in consumers.
  2. The gendered nature of suburban life. The stereotypes suggested above date back decades where men would participate in leisure activities, like grilling and golfing, with other men and women would stay inside, care for the children and home, and drink. The female dissatisfaction with suburbia helped kick off the women’s movement and even Marge Simpson ran into similar trouble.

If White Claw is appealing to a new generation and new norms, does this mean gendered life in the suburbs has changed? More men are drinking wine and women are grilling more? Or, are suburban gatherings all together different as suggested above: “group hangs” where friends and family mingle? (Or, are these “group hangs” more for single folk or kidless folk in urban or surban environments?)

Living close to work

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted earlier this week about the ability of workers to live near their place of work:

https://twitter.com/BetoORourke/status/1171238016289034240

There is a lot to think about here. A little historical context: most workers lived very close to work up until the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that came with it. The separation of home and work life is a relatively recent phenomenon for humans.

A little data on commute times. The 2017 American Community Survey showed the average commute time was 26.9 minutes. Commuting time can differ quite a bit across metropolitan regions:

McKenzie says the East Stroudsburg, Pa. metro area has among the longest average one-way travel time, clocking in at about 37.9 minutes. The U.S. Census Bureau contacted NPR with new information to include the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area, which has a travel time of 37 minutes. Travel times for the two metro areas are not statistically different from one another.

Among the shortest average travel times, usually less than 20 minutes, were in Cheyenne, Wyo. and Grand Forks, N.D.

There is an academic term that addresses this issue: spatial mismatch. In this theory, jobs available to lower-income workers are located far from their residences. Imagine a typical well-off suburb: can the workers at the local Target or McDonald’s or gas station or hotel live in that community or nearby? Patterns of residential segregation and exclusionary zoning can mean that cheaper or affordable housing is not available close to certain jobs. This can be a more hidden form of inequality as longer trips to work mean less time for other activities.

This might get trickier for people with more resources and the options of where they want to live. A common American trade-off for the middle-class gets at this: should a homeowner move further out from work to purchase a larger home or live closer to work and job centers (which can include urban downtowns as well as suburban job centers dozens of miles away from urban downtowns)? Is a shorter commute worth having if it comes with paying more money for (possibly smaller) housing?

And perhaps the wealthy can truly live the closest to work if they so choose. Some of them might even locate their business or firm to where they are. Others might have multiple homes, including ones significant distances away where they can get to work by means not available to many such a private jets and helicopters.

So perhaps the issue here is not really living close to work but deeper issues involving mixed-income neighborhoods and moving away from resources (income and wealth) determining where people can life. O’Rourke gets into this a bit more, calling for smarter and denser cities that he says will lead to numerous positive outcomes – which could include shorter commutes.

How a bank could still make money offering negative interest rate mortgages

A bank in Denmark explains how they can make money by offering mortgages with interest rates below zero:

Jyske Bank has had to do a lot of clarifying; there’s a widespread misconception that the bank is actually paying borrowers to take their money. First of all, the bank is not actually paying anyone; it is simply forgiving part of the loan each time a payment is made. A mortgage borrower is likely to end up paying Jyske back a little more than they borrowed, factoring in fees and charges associated with arranging the mortgage loan.

And the bank can afford to do this without losing money because it borrows at negative interest rates as well…

Despite being in “historic remortgaging,” Høegh said the negative interest rates don’t actually make it any easier for home buyers to get a loan, but makes it easier to get a bigger loan – a lower rate means a higher disposable budget.

As long as the borrower is paying more in interest than the mortgage cost the bank, there is money to be made.

I might be showing my ignorance here but it leads to a few more questions:

1. Does this change how much volume in mortgages banks and lenders need to make in order to make money?

2. Would an extended period of such mortgages lead to inflated housing values because people can pay more for homes?

3. These changes might not be so bad in a fairly stable housing market but I wonder if there would be more issues in a high-demand or high-price market.

It looks like we would have a ways to go before negative rate mortgages come to the US but it would be interesting to see what happens if they do come.

Celebrating the labor of those who build McMansions?

The construction of single-family homes employs many Americans. When demand for homes drops, such as in the late 2000s with the burst housing bubble, many are out of work until the housing market heats up again.

Critics of McMansions would argue such homes should not be built. Instead, the land could be put to better use or developers and communities should focus on building other kinds of housing units that do not suffer from the same flaws.

But, the construction of McMansions employs people. Developers may build them to make more money than they could by building starter homes and communities may approve them in order to keep property values higher. And these homes provide work. Is this the case where a job is not worth it if the outcome is an undesirable product (in the eyes of McMansion critics)?

On this Labor Day, it would be interesting to consider how those who construct McMansions might be employed constructing other buildings. For many who construct McMansions, it could be hard to turn down the work if other opportunities are not present or the job pays okay. Should part of the fight against McMansions also include efforts to address labor issues?

Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?